Dunkirk – A Preview

The story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which saw a flotilla of small civilian vessels assist in the rescue of stranded troops from France in 1940, has been told many times before, but never with such a visceral power and astonishing realism.

Dunkirk is a film that would, in any other age, be thought epic, although Christopher Nolan’s distain for CGI special effects has led to a curiously intimate movie, to the extent that some critics have complained there are not enough boats, or planes, or men or smoke. This is to entirely miss the point. What we do see is painfully and obviously real and the impact of that serves only to remind us how used we have become to cartoon action and cardboard characters. With winning performances from Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and (perhaps surprisingly) even Harry Styles, Nolan offers no backstory for his characters, cleverly allowing archetypes to stand in for everyman. The antithesis of puerile juvenilia such as Cameron’s Titanic, Nolan credits his audience with the ability to empathise with people we don’t know in jeopardy, recognising we are all members one of another.

The film is unbearably tense from the outset, with a score by Hans Zimmer heavily indebted to Elgar. It is also photographed with an almost unseemly beauty, not least in its closing moments as the countless small ships appear over the horizon. Respectful of its source and sober in its telling, this is proper, grown up cinema.

David Vass